Time, personhood, politics - Politics and subjectivity

The future of trauma theory - Edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone 2008

Time, personhood, politics
Politics and subjectivity

Jenny Edkins

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ’state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.

Walter Benjamin


In earlier work I examined the notion of time in relation to practices of memory or commemoration and forms of sovereign authority, identifying a form of time I called trauma time that provided an opening to challenge sovereign power and its reliance for legitimacy in modern times on the production of linear time (Edkins 2003). In this essay I attempt to extend this notion to encompass a present where the state has, arguably, attempted to take control of trauma time, to operate through or in a permanent state of exception. Thinking politics or the political through notions of time enables productive parallels to be drawn across a series of accounts from different traditions, and opens out a dimension of political thinking that often remains unexplored but that proves vital if forms of political life are to be refigured.

In The Time that Remains, Giorgio Agamben draws our attention to the unforgettable, that which is ’irretrievably lost in the history of society and the history of individuals’ and which is ’infinitely greater than what can be stored in the archives of memory’. He enjoins us to remain faithful to that which ’having been perpetually forgotten must remain unforgettable’ (40). Trauma time, as I developed the notion, is a time where events that we call traumatic or unspeakable both expose the lack that underpins a sovereign political symbolic order and reveal the radical relationality of life. The unforgettable testifies to an unspeakable perhaps similar to what we call the traumatic, before or outside any particular social or symbolic order and yet inhabiting it at its core. This calls for a broader reading of the traumatic and the forms of temporality it entails in relation to Agambenian notions of the messianic.

In this short exploratory essay I begin to look at how such a broadening might be thought, taking as my starting point Agamben’s analysis of messianic time and the forms of life and community to which such a time might gesture. Central to this discussion will be the place or the absence of the person in contemporary politics and Agamben’s contrast between chronological time, which transforms us into ’spectators continually missing themselves,’ and messianic time, or operational time, ’the time that we ourselves are’ (Agamben 2005: 68).

My interest in these questions arises from a concern with the way in which life, or more narrowly what I want to call ’personhood’, is commodified or instrumentalized in contemporary politics. It is an attempt to understand an aspect of contemporary social and political life that I find unacceptable and to explore what is objectionable about it and what other politics might or might not be possible. My instinct here is that the missing person may provide a site for the contestation of the very sovereign practices that produce the person as instrumentalized or commodified in the first place. In the same way in which I argued previously that trauma time and practices of memory are a crucial site of weakness for sovereign power, missing persons provide a locus at which the instability and vulnerability to challenge of current political formations become apparent.

It is important to note, in an aside, that I do not want to confine the notion of person here to what we currently call human persons; the instrumentalization or commodification with which I am concerned arises in part from the distinctions human—animal and animate—inanimate, which many political discussions fail to question. I do not rule out inanimate ’personhood’ either, though the objectification or instrumentalization of the inanimate is rarely problematized. It is considered obvious that stones, for example, are objects and not ’persons’. However, in the meaning that I want to give to ’personhood’, inanimate objects as well as animate or living entities (whether human or animal) might be considered as possessing a form of singular personhood as opposed to a socially produced ’role’, or place as mere objects among other objects.

What this essay attempts, then, to summarize and to put it slightly differently, is to think of the question of trauma time and that of the missing person alongside each other. It begins by examining first what the phrase ’missing person’ might mean. There are a number of ways in which the person is ’missing’. It then turns to the question of time and temporality, and in particular to the possibility of drawing parallels between notions of messianic time and trauma time. Finally, time and personhood are examined together. It turns out that an exploration of missing persons in contemporary politics proceeds productively by way of an examination of what remains. Just as, when exploring the challenge that trauma time poses to sovereign authority in my previous work, a study of the contested practices of memory and commemoration was helpful, so in looking at missing persons, a study of how we treat missing persons and what remains when the person is missing—photographs, dust, artefacts, memories, bodies, relatives—as sites of political contestation and emotional investment is productive.

In what ways is the person missing?

In contemporary politics we find that what for the time being I will call ’persons’ are missing in a number of distinct ways. First, we find a number of instances where people go missing: cases of the disappeared in the totalitarian regimes in South America, for example, those missing in action during a war, people whose fate remains unconfirmed after what we call terrorist attacks, such as those of September 11, 2001 in New York or July 7, 2005 in London, and those who as a result of a range of circumstances lose contact with their families and are regarded as missing. We might call these instances where people are ontically ’missing’: people move out of a context in which they are part of their recognized social or symbolic system. Those who are dead are not ’missing’, generally, in this sense. They have corpses; their remains have been buried or cremated according to the rites and rituals that obtain; they have a resting place; their relatives can ’move on’, or at least that is the common perception. Of course the dead are not infrequently referred to as ’lost’, which disturbs this account; they remain a presence of some significance in the lives of those who survive them.

On the whole, though, the missing are different from the dead. They are not there, they cannot be found, but they are not yet confirmed as dead. They have no corpses, no death certificates (for the most part), and time for those who are their relatives or friends is in some sense suspended: life cannot go on. The missing are not alive, but nor are they dead. We might wonder whether they are between two deaths, a symbolic death and an actual biological death. However, they are neither symbolically dead (they still have a place in the social or symbolic order, as long as there are people who are searching for them), nor actually dead, or at least we do not know whether they are dead or not.

There is another sense in which persons are missing, a sense that we might call ontological. Any person, or indeed any ’being’, is in some sense ’missing’. A person is always incomplete, the subject of a lack or an excess in Lacanian terminology. In this sense, what is missing is that which is unaccounted for in terms of the role or place which persons are allocated within a social or symbolic order. This is not just ’because we are not the authors of the social roles we are compelled to assume, but rather because these roles are in turn never fully identical with themselves, are inconsistent/incomplete, haunted by a void’ (Santner 2005: 113). In Lacanian terms again, the place which persons are allocated in the symbolic order, their entry into the shared symbolic or linguistic world, always produces a gap—a lack or an excess—persons are always both more and less than the identity implied by their entry into symbolic space. The person is incomplete, lacking, ’missing’, produced around a lack or an excess.

When we come to examine the person in political terms, in relation to orders of authorization or authority that delineate and make possible the social or symbolic field, we come across another sense of ’missing person’. In the Lacanian account, at least in that version of the Lacanian account that relates to the discourse of the Master, the symbolic order is produced in relation to a master signifier—a signifier that halts the shifting of signifiers and quilts the field of meaning to provide a temporary stabilization and produce a social or symbolic order articulated around that particular master signifier. The master signifier authorizes and organizes the symbolic field. In contemporary western politics, the social or political field is articulated around sovereignty or sovereign power, which stands in as the master signifier (Edkins and Pin-Fat 1999). In the biopolitical account provided by Agamben, persons are produced in relation to sovereign power. The Foucauldian account of biopolitics, upon which Agamben draws, argues that persons are no longer the focus of politics. Instead, politics is organized around populations. The body of the individual is not the site of political investment and authority, rather the location of politics as administration shifts and the spotlight is on the population as a whole—population is produced as a site of regulation, control and intervention. The person as such is missing.

Agamben’s account of the way in which what I am calling the person is missing in contemporary politics is a particularly productive one. Although it is framed as a development of the Foucauldian account, contesting Foucault’s argument that in modern times sovereign power has given way, as the organizing form of relation, to biopolitics, for me and for others—I am thinking particularly of Eric Santner here—it is nevertheless an account that has important resonances with Lacanian thought.

In Agamben’s analysis (1998, 1999, 2005), under sovereign power what could otherwise become the person is produced as bare life or homo sacer, life with no political status, life removed to the sphere of the sacred, life taken out of use. The challenge to sovereign power in the name of personhood would be profanation: the reclaiming of the sacred, its re-introduction into the realm of use. Personhood is politically missing; it has no political significance or meaning. It has no place as such in the sovereign symbolic order. It can exist—it can be included in the symbolic or political field—only as bare life, something that is excluded from politics, and something that is no longer taken account of.

It is possible to point to particular instances where the person is symbolically and politically dead, but remains alive, physically. Instances where the person is, psychoanalytically, between two deaths. Agamben himself regards the Muselmann, inhabitant in extremis of the concentration camp, as missing in this way. Another, more specific illustration of this might be the case of Dr David Kelly, the UK biological weapons scientist, who, after the stand he took against the Blair government’s dossier of intelligence prior to the Iraq war, was reduced to nothing but bare life, and whose suicide, if suicide it was, could perhaps be understood as a recognition of the way in which he had been deprived of a political voice (Edkins 2005). In humanitarianism we have a further example. Those whose lives are at risk are rescued—their lives are saved—by humanitarian action, but this is action that does not reinstate them as political beings, but only as bare life.

In Agamben’s account, contemporary sovereign politics has reached or is reaching the point at which ’we are all virtually homines sacri’ (Agamben 1998: 115). We are all bare life, biopolitically ’missing’. Importantly, and ironically, this missing life can become intensely and decisively political; the assumption of bare life as a task is a crucial site at which sovereign power is challenged. The irony is that, as Agamben puts it, ’in the state of exception become the rule, the life of homo sacer, which was the correlate of sovereign power, turns into an existence over which power no longer seems to have any hold’ (153).

In summary then, the person is missing in contemporary politics in a number of ways that I have outlined: ontically, ontologically, politically and biopolitically. A series of questions can be raised at this point. When is the person missing? Or in other words, what notions of time are implied in these conceptions? And what remains when the person is missing? How might an examination of these two questions throw light on what is meant in the account I am attempting to put forward here by the terms ’missing person’ and ’personhood’?

When is the person missing?

What are the forms of time and temporality that are implied in these notions of missing person, and how might they relate to forms of authority or politics? Notions of time and temporality are central to the Agambenian and Lacanian concepts of personhood and politics that I am working with here, and, of course, the notion of what I am calling the person as missing, or in some sense ’absent’, implies a concept of presence, presence which inevitably has to be thought (and problematized) in relation to how we might think about time.

In my work on trauma, memory and politics (Edkins 2003), I proposed two forms or notions of time, which I called linear time and trauma time. The former was associated with the nation-state and sovereign authority, the latter with instances of traumatic encounter, instances where the sovereign social order falters—only to be rapidly re-instated, of course, alongside a resumption of linear time. This work used an examination of ontic trauma—the occurrence of events we call traumatic such as wars, famines, violence, abuse—to explore the political implications of the ontological trauma at the root of both subjectivity and social order.

In the Lacanian account of the subject and the social or symbolic order, both are constituted around a traumatic excess or lack. Both are inevitably incomplete. The subject’s search for wholeness is initiated in what Lacan calls the mirror stage. At this point we are faced with an image of ourselves, either in a mirror, or, more likely, in the regard or gaze of others, that we misrecognize. We take its apparent wholeness as meaning that we ourselves are whole or complete. Other people take us as ’whole’, and it pleases us to accept that vision, despite any uneasiness we may feel or any sense we may have that we are not as we appear. This sets in train a pursuit of wholeness that continues to motivate our desire and deceive us. The search for wholeness or ontological fullness haunts our thinking and our action.

The symbolic or social order—or in Slavoj Žižek’s useful phrase ’what we call social reality’ (Žižek 1989)—is also structured around a traumatic excess or lack. In the Lacanian account this is figured in relation to what Lacanians call the real: the entry into the symbolic produces a ’real’ that lies outside or beyond the symbolic and yet is internal to it and constitutive of it. The symbolic is never complete, never all-embracing: the effort to produce a symbolic order produces at the same time the unspeakable, the unsymbolizable, that which lies beyond the symbolic, or, and at the same time, deep within it. Another word for this is the traumatic. However, the symbolic order, or what we call social reality, functions to conceal the impossibility of completeness. As ’fantasy’, it provides ’answers’ for the unanswerable questions that plague thought. It provides a context for action and hides the trauma at the root of subjectivity and social order.

In contemporary politics, the sovereign state provides a crucial point around which the symbolic order is constituted. The state, through its accounts of historical origin and its vision of continuity into the future, provides a location in relation to which subjectivity, and its imaginary wholeness, is produced. However, the wholeness, both of the state and of the subject, is fragile. When what we call traumatic events occur, the inevitable incompleteness of the symbolic order is revealed. Events such as wars, and the ontic trauma they produce, reveal the inevitable ontological trauma around which what we call social reality is constituted.

In the face of the trauma of war, there are two responses. The response of the state is to reassert its authority through heroic stories of continuity and origin and narratives of sacrifice. Those who have experienced trauma themselves are often more inclined to want to hold on to the insights that they feel they have gained. They contest the reinstatement of the stories the state wants to tell. Practices of remembrance and commemoration in the aftermath of a war become an important site of contestation and struggle. There are those who want to return as rapidly as possible to the security of the accounts of continuity and wholeness, and there are others who wish to recognize the impossibility of such comforts and acknowledge the radical and inevitable incompleteness of any attempts at symbolization.

Thus events we call traumatic are a point at which the structures of sovereign authority are particularly vulnerable to challenge. The smooth linear time of the state, and its stories of past and future, have been thrown into question by the intrusion of trauma time. Traumas, by definition, are events that are incapable of, or at the very least resist, narration or integration into linear narratives or, in other words, into homogeneous linear time. Trauma is not experienced in linear time; there are no words, no language, through which such an experience could take place. A traumatic event cannot be integrated into our symbolic universe, the very universe that has been called into question by the trauma. It cannot be narrated. It is re-encountered through flashbacks that return to the scene, or re-told in accounts where the trauma is re-lived, moment-by-moment. As Cathy Caruth puts it, in her account entitled Unclaimed Experience: ’In its most general definition, trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena’ (11). However, importantly, the power of trauma ’is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all … It is fully evident only in connection with another place, and in another time’ (17). Traumatic events are only experienced, if we can call it that, when the past, which has not yet ’taken place’, intrudes into the present and demands attention.

Agamben’s discussion of the unforgettable is interesting in relation to this discussion of the traumatic. That which remains unforgettable ’refers to all in individual or collective life that is forgotten with each instant’ (Agamben 2005b: 39); he emphasizes that ’the quantity of what is irretrievably lost … is infinitely greater than what can be stored in the archives of memory’ (40). The unforgettable, like the traumatic, is not something that has been remembered and then forgotten. Like the traumatic also, the unforgettable is something that inhabits the symbolic histories and traditions that are constituted around it: it is ’a shapeless chaos’ or ’unforgettable nucleus that [history and tradition] bear within themselves at their core’. It is something of which we are ’unaware’—we might say that it is something of which we are unconscious—and yet it has an effect, ’a force and way of operating that cannot be measured in the same way as conscious memory’ (40).

Importantly, ’the determining factor is the capacity to remain faithful to that which having been perpetually forgotten, must remain unforgettable’ (40; my emphasis). If we don’t, the unforgettable ’will reappear within us in a destructive and perverse way’ (41), as a return of the repressed through symptoms and disturbances, or what Santner calls ’symbolic torsion’ or ’signifying stress’. According to Agamben, there is no point in trying to ’restore to memory what is forgotten by inscribing it in the archives and monuments of history, or in trying to construct another tradition and history of the oppressed and defeated’ (40). However, there is, I would argue, something to be said for the attempt to construct monuments and memories of another sort, ones that do not incorporate the unforgettable, or what I have called the traumatic, into the narratives of history and its linear temporalities, but which attempt to encircle the trauma, the unspeakable, the unforgettable, and mark its presence as such. We can acknowledge the void, the lack or the excess at the heart of our symbolic universe—or what Agamben calls ’the unforgettable nucleus’ (40)—without attempting to name or gentrify it. Such an acknowledgement, a marking, is a way of remaining faithful.

I began this section by looking at the contrasts that I draw between two forms of time, linear time, or the time of the state, and trauma time. The first of these, linear time, is what Benjamin calls homogeneous, empty time (XIII), a time that he associates with the damaging and oppressive notion of progress, and what Agamben calls chronological time, the time that turns us into observers, third persons, continually missing ourselves. The second form of time I identify, trauma time, is similar, as I will attempt to tease out now, to what Agamben refers to as operational time, ’the time that we ourselves are’ (Agamben 2005b: 68), the messianic ’time of the now’ in Benjamin (XIV).

In The Time that Remains, Agamben stresses the difference between messianism and eschatology, ’the time of the end and the end of time’ (63). Messianic time is ’the time of the now’; problems arise, however, when we try to represent messianic time along the line of chronological time, in the form of a spatial image of time. Agamben argues that spatial representations make unthinkable the lived experience of time, and suggests the concept of ’operational time’ as an alternative. This is an attempt to take into account the way in which there is a disjuncture or disjointedness in our efforts to represent time, which always seem to have to take a particular form—a spatial form that makes it look as if time were already in existence—which does not coincide with our lived experience of time in the making. Our attempts to produce a representation of time produce, according to Agamben, another time, one that ’is not entirely consumed by representation’ (Agamben 2005b: 67). This is a familiar problem to Lacanian thought, one that arises with any attempt at symbolization: such attempts always produce a lack or an excess. They always fail, in that sense.

What efforts to produce a symbolic time give rise to is another time, the time in which those representations are produced. In Agamben’s terminology this is operational time, or messianic time, ’the time that time takes to come to an end, or, more precisely, the time we take to bring to an end, to achieve our representation of time.’ He continues:

This is not the line of chronological time (which is representable but unthinkable) nor the instant of its end (which is just as unthinkable); nor is it a segment cut from chronological time; rather, it is operational time pressing within chronological time, working and transforming it from within; it is the time we need to make time end: the time that is left to us [the time that remains].


The messianic ’is a caesura that divides the division between times and introduces a remnant, a zone of undecidability, in which the past is dislocated into the present and the present is extended into the past’ (74). There are similarities to what I have called trauma time, the time that renders linear time inoperative.

Importantly for my argument here, Agamben draws out the connection between forms of time and subjects or persons:

Whereas our representation of chronological time, as the time in which we are, separates us from ourselves and transforms us into impotent spectators of ourselves—spectators who look at the time that flies without any time left, continually missing themselves—messianic time, an operational time in which we take hold of and achieve our representations of time, is the time that we ourselves are, and for this reason is the only real time, the only time we have.


The person, then, is missing in linear, chronological time, the time of sovereign power, the time of the state of exception.

At the end of my study of practices of memory and questions of political authority, I noted that practices of the state in relation to traumatic events seemed to be changing, to the extent that there was a possibility that ’the state has taken charge of trauma time’ (Edkins 2003: 233). It had been noticeable how rapidly the state had moved to practices of memory after terrorist attacks, to the extent that commemorative silences had been called while events were still unfolding. It was noticeable too how insecurity had been emphasized; the inability of the state to guarantee security, and the likely continuing presence of insecurity for the foreseeable future, became the validating story of state violence and oppression. It is unlikely that this was a change that took place suddenly in the early twenty-first century, but talk of ’unknown unknowns’ seemed to bring to light a story that was not the familiar narrative of wars followed by victory celebrations and commemorations of heroism and sacrifice.

Is it possible that Agamben and Benjamin’s assertions that the state of emergency is no longer the exception but the rule require a re-thinking of the place of the traumatic in political life? Is sovereign power, working through a permanent and all embracing state of emergency or exception, now working through and with trauma? In other words, is the traumatic void around which the social order is constituted no longer an impediment, something to be concealed at all costs, but an asset, to be played up and exploited?

It is perhaps the case that the state, in the permanent state of exception, has normalized or gentrified ontic trauma. This is where the broader notion of the unforgettable as a more expansive notion of ontological trauma might be helpful. Although the state may have narrativized events of trauma, it is still using these new accounts to provide a semblance of order and completeness, a semblance that cannot acknowledge the unforgettable. Indeed, what has been forgotten has to be brought into these accounts as something we remember having forgotten, rather than as the unforgettable.

What is the meaning of personhood in this account?

Eric Santner points out that the psychoanalytic account is an account of subjectivity under sovereign politics. The life that is of concern to psychoanalysis is biopolitical life, the ’life that has been thrown by the enigma of its legitimacy, the question of its place and authorization within a meaningful order’ (Santner 2001: 30):

to be thrown by the enigma of legitimacy is to be seduced by the prospect of an exception to the space of social reality and meaning, by the fantasy of an advent, boundary, or outer limit of that space that would serve as its constituting frame and power, its final, self-legitimating ground.


Escape from capture by sovereign power would then be not an escape from ordinary life, but rather an escape into the ordinary, a giving up of the fantasy of an ’exceptional “beyond”’ (31), the idea of an outside, a transcendental foundation.

Without the notion of exception, without the prospect of an outside, an enemy, sovereign politics fails. Psychoanalysis itself, as a clinical practice, can be seen in two ways. In one view, it is seen as a means of normalization of the subject of sovereign power, a reconciliation of the subject to its place in the symbolic order, to a more satisfactory assumption of the symbolic mandate that gives the subject identity. Alternatively, it can be regarded as a practice aimed at breaking with a ’culture of legitimization’ and its violences (27), a practice that enables a traversing of the fantasy.

Santner develops his notion of an escape into the ordinary, into what he calls ’the midst of life’ (23), through the notion of the neighbour and an analysis of the miracle (Santner 2005). In particular he explores the ’miracle’ of the move from homo sacer, as the form of life produced by and captured in sovereign power in the state of exception, to the neighbour, a form of life closely linked to messianic time. In the case of the neighbour, the demand is for neighbour-love, an interaction based on the recognition of that in the neighbour that is non-identical to itself. In the Lacanian account, as we have seen, personhood is constituted around a lack or an excess, and is always incomplete. The person as neighbour develops a stance or a comportment towards this gap, a comportment that is specific to each person as singularity. It is the recognition of this comportment towards the lack in the neighbour, and the structurally similar but practically quite distinct comportment adopted by what Santner calls the ’self’ as opposed to the ’personality’, that constitutes neighbour-love.

In previous work, Véronique Pin-Fat and I developed the notion of the assumption of bare life as a mode of resistance to sovereign power and re-appropriation of homo sacer without a reclamation of citizenship as such: a profanation, if you like, or a re-entry of life into the realm of use and into a properly political power relation (Edkins and Pin-Fat 2005). We looked at the acts of asylum seekers who took to sewing together their lips and eyelids as a protest against their confinement in detention camps as an example of the assumption of bare life. This was, we argued, a direct ’taking on’ of their own bare life, and a demand addressed to others. As we pointed out, the acts of lip-sewing

are not carried out invisibly. They are a demand addressed directly to those who observe ’through the wire’, not a demand made on the terms of sovereign power. In taking on their life as bare life, the protestors call for a direct, unmediated, visceral response, life to life.


In other words, in Santner’s terms, by making visible their wound, in the most obvious sense, they demand a response neighbour to neighbour.

Slavoj Žižek gives another example, the example of the refusniks in Israel, soldiers in the Israeli army who in 2002 refused to serve in the occupied territories. The Palestinians in the occupied territories were being treated as bare life or homo sacer. According to Žižek, ’what the refusniks accomplished is the passage from homo sacer to “neighbour”: they treat the Palestinians not as “equal full citizens” but as neighbours’, a passage or move that represents the ethical moment at its purest (Žižek 2002: 116). According to Santner, ’fidelity to what opens at such moments, the labor of sustaining such a break within the order of the everyday, of going on with what interrupts our goings on’ sustains ’a gap between the flow of historical time—the time of the “nations”—and that of the “remnant” … It is precisely in this gap that the gesture of the refusniks transpires’ (Santner 2006: 106). It testifies to trauma time, the trauma of what has to be repressed—the lack or the gap that has to be covered over—for life as homo sacer to be maintained.

What Santner’s account brings out is the relation of the demand for a neighbourly response to the psychoanalytic account of the state of exception, an account that usefully builds on Agamben’s work. What the psychoanalytic account provides is a reading of the hold that sovereign politics has over us—an explanation of what is seductive about it and what we must give up if we are to contest it. It enables us to see sovereign power not as some abstraction that oppresses us, but as a fantasy that we are simultaneously trapped in, implicated in and responsible for.

In Santner’s account, trauma time, the messianic ’time of the now’, is the time of the miracle. A traumatic encounter is an encounter with the real, an encounter normally prevented by the structure of fantasy or what we call social reality, which is sustained by sovereignty as master signifier. For Lacan, Santner argues, ’the possibility of experiencing miracles lies in suspending the hold of this structure of fantasy or at least of entering into a new kind of relationship with it’ (Santner 2006: 198), or, in other words, encountering the real. In the context of sovereign power and its state of exception become the rule, the miracle, the trauma, is not the exception. On the contrary, ’a miracle signifies not the state of exception but rather its suspension, an intervention into this peculiar topological knot—the outlaw dimension internal to law—that serves to sustain the symbolic function of sovereignty’ (103).

The neighbour is the personhood that is missing in sovereign politics—and yet available in everyday life. The neighbour is the missing person in my account: it is precisely the lack or gap between the neighbour-person and the social role he or she is supposed to play in the social or symbolic order that constitutes the neighbour as loveable. And it is precisely the excess of neighbourly personhood over social personality that has to be concealed or at least disregarded for sovereign authority to be legitimized. Sovereign power cannot take account of persons as neighbours; indeed sovereign symbolic order exists, is produced, precisely so that persons do not need to acknowledge their own personhood, the traumatic gap around which they are constituted, but can take refuge in personality or social role.

The neighbour as person must of course remain missing. Any attempt to produce a wholeness or completeness is impossible; such an attempt, which would be an attempt to bring the person to presence, would destroy the neighbour-person as such, producing in its place the homo sacer, the subject of sovereign power, ’a figure who is included within the sphere of political existence by virtue of his radical exclusion, whose presence within the order of the human is paid for by his deprivation of any symbolic representation’ (Santner 2005: 100).

In conclusion

My work is both a call for the ’missing’ person to be recognized and accorded a place in contemporary politics, and an insistence that the person as such must remain ’missing’ in this context. How then can the person remain ontologically missing, and yet be re-introduced into politics? Clearly what is at stake here is a reintroduction of the person as missing, as profane perhaps, into something that goes under the name of politics. This would not be a sovereign politics, with its reliance on sets, distinctions, and location, but another politics, a politics of the neighbour perhaps. A politics not as a denial or covering over of the incompleteness of the symbolic order but as a recognition at least, maybe even a celebration, of that incompleteness. It would operate locally, on a small scale, face-to-face. But we already have such a politics. It is called everyday life. It is in everyday life, including the everyday lives of those we call politicians, that authority and power relations are negotiated and take place, in the here and now. It is in everyday life that the missing person is recognized and accommodated, by other ’missing persons’.

The final question then is how we can envisage a form of life (or perhaps form-of-life in Agamben’s terms) where the person remains missing, but, importantly, without the instrumentalization or commodification of life that missing personhood entails in contemporary politics. The notion of the person as neighbour is very helpful here. The neighbour embodies, as we have seen, a form of personhood that relates to other persons precisely in terms of ontological lack. Santner points out that ’with respect to human being … what is irreducible there pertains to a constitutive, rather than merely contingent, dimension of trauma … this trauma is a function of our finitude, our subjection to death’ (Santner 2005: 95). Neighbourliness is an interaction based on an acknowledgement of finitude, and of what is missing—an acknowledgment of the impossibility of completeness and a recognition of the trauma around which each person constitutes a fantasy of subjectivity. It is a taking on, or assumption of, the lack or exception at the heart of what we call social reality, a traversing of the fantasy, and a recognition in self and neighbour of a form-of-life other than that available through sovereign power.

Although Agamben enjoins us to ’attempt to understand the meaning and internal form of … “the time of the now”’, and maintains that ’only after this can we raise the question of how something like a messianic community is in fact possible’ (Agamban 2005: 2; my emphasis), I would want to suggest that to wait as he proposes would be to remain trapped in too linear a view of the flow of time. The messianic community is, now, already. What we can do is look at where it is taking place—or, should we say, when it is taking time. We can begin to look for such community in the realm of the everyday, in the lives of the oppressed, the missing, the formerly disappeared, the survivors of betrayals … in anything and everything that escapes the attention or capture of sovereign power. In the persons that sovereignty misses.


The arguments developed here build on earlier work with Véronique Pin-Fat, and I am greatly in her debt for continuing discussions on these and other topics.

Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The witness and the archive. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone, 1999.

Agamben, Giorgio. State of exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005a.

Agamben, Giorgio. The time that remains: A commentary on the letter to the Romans. Trans. Patricia Dailey. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005b.

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin: Selected writings: 1938—1940 vol. 4. Eds Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2006.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed experience: Trauma, narrative, and history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. ’Force of law: The “mystical foundation of authority”.’ In David Gray Carlson, Drucilla Cornell and Michel Rosenfeld, eds. Deconstruction and the possibility of justice. New York: Routledge, 1992. 3—67.

Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and the memory of politics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Edkins, Jenny. ’Ethics of engagement: Intellectuals in world politics.’ International Relations 19.1 (2005): 64—69.

Edkins, Jenny and Véronique Pin-Fat. ’The subject of the political.’ In Jenny Edkins, Nalini Persram and Véronique Pin-Fat, eds. Sovereignty and subjectivity. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1999. 1—18.

Edkins, Jenny and Véronique Pin-Fat. ’Through the wire: Relations of power and relations of violence.’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies 34.1 (2005): 1—24.

Lacan, Jacques. ’The mirror stage as formative of the I function as revealed in psychoanalytic experience.’ In Jacques Lacan, ed. Ecrits: The first complete edition in English. New York: Norton, 2006. 75—81.

Santner, Eric L. On the psychotheology of everyday life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Santner, Eric L. ’Miracles happen: Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Freud, and the matter of the neighbor.’ In Slavoj Žižek, Eric L Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard. The neighbor: Three enquiries in political theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 76—133.

Santner, Eric L. On creaturely life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.

Žižek, Slavoj. The sublime object of ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the desert of the real. London: Verso, 2002.

Žižek, Slavoj, Eric L Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard. The neighbor: Three enquiries in political theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.